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COMMENTARY: Small paper, big story, big paper

Two years ago, Michael Stella, a developer of local properties, began taking notice of the activity of a man named Michael David Scott, who was busily engaged in purchasing three-decker homes, re-habbing them into separate-floor condo units, and quickly selling them, often to out-of state buyers. Many of the properties, he noticed, were then foreclosed on in short order.

Stella mentioned this when he received a call from Chris Lovett, the news director for the Boston Neighborhood Network and a regular contributor to the pages of the Reporter, who was looking into the situation himself. Soon enough, he wrote a pair of stories for the newspaper in July and August of last year.

The first article, on July 31, was headlined: Three-decker bingo: Lenders continue to pump big money into condos despite foreclosure histories.

The second, on Aug. 31, ran under a headline that said: Missing in action: owners who live at home; Investors dominate multi-family market.

In that second story, Lovett wrote: "Michael David Scott has been linked to conversions of more than one hundred units, whether in sales by himself, his development entities, or associates. Most of the units are in Dorchester and Roxbury, with many sales going to buyers who buy multiple units. Many of the buyers are listed as being from other states or locales outside of Boston, and the number of foreclosure filings against these buyers – whether at locations involving Scott or other developers – continues to climb.

"Three weeks ago, in response to a Reporter article detailing at least eight foreclosures among his converted units, Scott said the figure was "impressive," given the overall market. "If I don't have foreclosures, I think I'm doing something wrong."

Later in the story, Scott pointed out that he was selling to "legitimate buyers," even though, he allowed, they "sometimes make bad choices." He noted that condo units purchased for investment take time to pay off. "I think it's a good investment," he said, "because after taxes, you're making money and you're building up equity over time."

As the later records showed, for many of his unit buyers, time tended to run out. "It's a scary market," said Scott. "Everybody's pointing fingers. It's a high-risk area."

Lovett summed up things with this paragraph, which suggested the story was about more than what Scott was up to: "A review of more than 200 conversions over the last two years in Boston – mostly in Dorchester and Roxbury – shows more than 100 foreclosure filings against owners who bought more than one unit, sometimes in the same building. Names that appear as unit buyers with mortgage trouble sometimes turn up later as investors converting more units, or as people with power of attorney to represent other buyers."

What followed next with the story speaks loudly to where a community like Dorchester, and even Boston, fits at a time when journalism is in a transition with no clear consensus as to what the outcome might be.

Clearly the story that Chris Lovett was uncovering "had legs," as we in the newspaper business used to say. The buy-rehab-sell-foreclose matrix called for a deep looksee that would by its nature be extensive, expensive, and full of extraordinary challenges for a local newspaper and its intrepid freelance reporter.

Soon enough came a letter to Lovett from a lawyer from the law firm representing Scott warning him that his continuing reporting could result in serious legal consequences for him and the Reporter.

No newspaper worth its ink falls back in the face of such an admonition against the quality of its news report, but reality does intervene in terms of staff size, the money needed to pursue a story with so many tentacles, the time needed to dot all the "I's", and the will and financial resources to deal with a defense of its actions and those of its trusted reporter in the legal arena should things come to that.

So the Reporter's pursuit of the ending to this story was stalled.

Enter an eminent investigative reporter named Walter V. Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner with The Boston Globe's Spotlight Team, which he directed in its world-shaking probe into the priest-abuse scandal in the archdiocese of Boston. I happened to be playing a round of golf with him and I mentioned the Lovett two-parter to him, saying that the Reporter and Chris had gone as far as we could with the story, given our resources.

After some discussion, Robinson, retired but holding a continuing affiliation with the Globe, managed to get the story onto the paper's agenda and the result of that almost a year later was this past Sunday's lead-story Page One presentation of the Michael David Scott real estate story that ran across two full pages inside.

The article, by Jenifer B. McKim, reported that Scott had filed for bankruptcy in April, reporting assets of about $1.4 million and liabilities as much as $6.2 million to more than 200 creditors. It noted that the bankruptcy petition had put on hold eight lawsuits that have been filed against Scott, including one by Bank of America alleging that Scott had led a check-cashing scheme that defrauded the institution of $1.5 million with the help of two former bank employees.

The Globe story said that thirteen people who have done business with Scott say they have been interviewed by FBI agents about their real estate dealings. The federal agency would neither confirm nor deny an investigation, the paper noted. So, it seems, this story is ongoing.

For someone like me, who worked as an editor at the Globe for 35 years, the account above raises a series of questions, among them:

* When/if the long-seen demise of the major metro paper is a fact, what will happen to this sort of large-bore story of several thousand words, reported over many months, edited by several sets of keen eyes, written in a professional manner, and prominently displayed with an engaging large graphic presentation across three pages for millions of eyes in a Sunday morning broadsheet?

* Is there another journalistic enterprise, electronic or otherwise, that has the will and resources and patience – and the platform – to equal the impact that the traditional broadsheet gives to an important news piece? In this case, for example, the Globe was sued by Scott over a story it published about the Bank of America case. I feel certain there will be, but what?

* The thrust of a newspaper report that is presenting something that is a scoop or the product of lengthy enterprise work comes early in the morning, at roughly the same time every day for everyone who subscribes to the paper. If it is especially newsworthy, it then explodes into the web world for all to read in their electronic warrens. Absent the larger-circulation paper, its staff work and its reputation, who sets off the explosion?

Local news chroniclers like the Reporter know the who and what and where and why of their neighborhoods and I presume they will continue to serve their readers well going forward. Their stories will of their nature be narrowly drawn and often free of larger implications.

Metro news chroniclers have long had a more exalted mission, a sense that what they do by its nature has an overarching mission with far-reaching implications.

Will it really take the end of the major metro dailies for readers to understand how important it has been to have such an agent tying our regional communities together in words and pictures on newsprint. I hope not.